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Noughts & Crosses at Richmond Theatre

Noughts & Crosses is a euphemism for blacks and whites. The Noughts are the whites and the Crosses are the blacks. In the world of the play, the Crosses are the dominant ethnic group wielding complete power over a subjugated white population: the Noughts. It’s a fascinating and disturbing play which forces all of us to re-evaluate our fundamental assumptions about race and power. What would it be like to be white in a racist society where blacks formed the ruling elite? How would whites react to such a structurally racist regime? Would they be justified in forming a violent terrorist organisation? These are some of the questions explored in Pilot Theatre’s take on Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel, adapted for this two-and-a-half-hour stage version by poet, playwright and performer Sabrina Mahfouz.

James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy photo by Robert Day
James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy photo by Robert Day.

Noughts & Crosses is both a political satire and a love story. It is a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The very title echoes that does it not? Noughts & Crosses / Romeo & Juliet. The Capulets and the Montagues become not two rival factions but two rival ethnic groups. And in this version, Romeo is a Nought: Callum. And Juliet is a Cross: Sephy. As Shakespeare explored love across factional divides so Malorie explores love across racial divides. The personal is political. Speaking to, touching hands, kissing, falling in love with someone from the other race is a political act. Thrillingly Noughts & Crosses ultimately demonstrates the power of trans-racial love to break the boundaries of racial separation. In that sense, it differs fundamentally from Romeo and Juliet which ends tragically and blankly. Noughts & Crosses offers hope for a non-racist future.

The two central protagonists of Noughts & Crosses are Sephy (brilliantly realised by the super talented Effie Ansah) and Callum (the impressive James Arden). Sephy is the daughter of the Home Secretary in the racist Cross regime. Just as we accept that Juliet a Capulet only has eyes for Romeo a Montague so we accept that despite being the daughter of a high-ranking official Sephy a Cross only has eyes for Callum a Nought. The love story drives the play. Sephy and Callum find themselves caught between two racial identities. Both are conflicted and bewildered. Torn between their love for each other and their loyalty to their family and racial identity. This is made painfully so when in a Freudian slip of the tongue Sephy uses a racial slur “Blanker” to refer to Callum. Think of the N-word for an equivalent. The play shows how these two lovers battle to overcome their own prejudices to find a way to love someone from the other side. The insidious nature of the enforced official segregation makes their eventual physical coming together all the more poignant and visceral.

The political satire of Noughts & Crosses is chillingly Orwellian. Screens relay 24-hour news. The secret security services hunt down Noughts with ruthless efficiency. School children and parents are encouraged to prevent Callum from attending an all-Cross school. They parade up and down the street outside the school carrying placards with slogans: ‘No Noughts in our Schools’. Orange juice is a luxury which only the Cross can enjoy. Irate Cross girls beat up the traitor Sephy and accuse her of being a ‘Noughts’ Lover’. An ironic inversion of a racial slur. In desperation, Callum’s dad and brother join the Liberation Militia. A terrorist organisation fighting for equality for Noughts. This strategy is rejected by Callum. Just as Sephy rejects her Father’s racist subjugation of the Noughts. Together they find a way to strike a fatal blow that strikes at the very foundations of the racist state. It is this profoundly life-affirming action that makes Noughts & Crosses such an important play with a message for us all.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Pilot Theatre presents this gripping Romeo and Juliet story. Written by award-winning writer Malorie Blackman and adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz, Noughts and Crosses is a captivating drama of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world.

Sephy and Callum sit together on a beach. They are in love. It is forbidden.

Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses there are racial and social divides. A segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

As violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.

Richmond Theatre
Until Sat 1 Oct 2022

The Alexandra, Birmingham
Tue 15 Nov – Sat 19 Nov 2022

Theatre Royal Brighton
Tue 21 Feb – Sat 25 Feb 2023

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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